It's the Friday before Memorial Day weekend in Arcata, California. The great Kinetic Sculpture Race begins the next morning, and the Arcata Kinetic Sculpture Lab is buzzing.
The small warehouse is a mad workshop of strange dreams. Giant, dusty shells of creatures, including a dragon and a white rhino, hang from the ceiling. Teams of workers sing along with a straining boom box. Dominating all is a 30-foot-long, 8-foot-wide, frill-necked lizard, perched on a four-man pedaling machine.
Tagged "the triathlon of the art world," the three-day, 42-mile Kinetic Sculpture Race has been held every Memorial Day weekend since the early 1970s.
It sends men and women and their homemade, human-powered land/water vehicles bouncing, bobbing, and lurching along the far North Coast of California from Arcata to Ferndale, illuminating the creative, funky spirit of this corner of the West like nothing else.
I'm joining race legend and local artist Ken "Beetle" Beidleman on the team of the frill-necked lizard, the "Frillseekers," on the ride of my life.
Day 1: Arcata to Eureka
At noon on Saturday, Arcata's town square is packed with racers and spectators. The town siren signals the start. But in the spirit of Beidleman's kick-back strategy ("I've won every damned thing you can win in this," he says, celebrating his 20th year of racing; "I want to take it easy this year"), we take it slow. Our team of four pilots and three support crew (who'll be on bikes) strolls over to the lizard, dons lizard-head helmets, and sets out.
In Beetle's chromoly steel wonder ― articulated in front and back, with 588 gear combinations ― we speed along country roads, travel up dunes, and roll with the surf. We pass competing sculptures, including a giant tomcat piloted by Beetle's longtime partner, June Moxon, and her feline support team.
One of the greatest challenges, though, lies ahead: Dead Man's Drop, where spectators watch sculptures plummet down a tall, scarily steep dune and, if still upright, negotiate a narrow path between brush and trees.
Shouting war whoops, we shoot down the Drop. We bounce and swing hard right, out of control. We correct left, the lizard's tail snaps back and forth in true reptilian fashion, and we shoot through the gap and onto the trail as the crowd roars its approval.